Japan’s nuclear accident was a great human tragedy, but its long-term health effects have been exaggerated—and the virtues of nuclear power remain.
Denver has particularly high natural radioactivity. It comes primarily from radioactive radon gas, emitted from tiny concentrations of uranium found in local granite. If you live there, you get, on average, an extra dose of .3 rem of radiation per year (on top of the .62 rem that the average American absorbs annually from various sources). A rem is the unit of measure used to gauge radiation damage to human tissue.
The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends evacuation of a locality whenever the excess radiation dose exceeds .1 rem per year. But that’s one-third of what I call the “Denver dose.” Applied strictly, the ICRP standard would seem to require the immediate evacuation of Denver.
It is worth noting that, despite its high radiation levels, Denver generally has a lower cancer rate than the rest of the United States. Some scientists interpret this as evidence that low levels of radiation induce cancer resistance; I think it is more likely that lifestyle differences account for the disparity.
Now consider the most famous victim of the March 2011 tsunami in Japan: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Two workers at the reactor were killed by the tsunami, which is believed to have been 50 feet high at the site.
But over the following weeks and months, the fear grew that the ultimate victims of this damaged nuke would number in the thousands or tens of thousands. The “hot spots” in Japan that frightened many people showed radiation at the level of .1 rem, a number quite small compared with the average excess dose that people happily live with in Denver.
What explains the disparity? Why this enormous difference in what is considered an acceptable level of exposure to radiation?